Why Are Writers of Color Underrepresented Among Published Authors? One Poet's Questions and Possible Solutions
On 7 November 2015, The Atlantic published an article by Kavita Das titled, “Writers shouldn't romanticize rejection: in the literary world, talent isn't hiding. It's being ignored.” The article advanced two major premises: that a minority “voice” may be “alien or unrecognizable” and that rejection is a function of “power” relations. In Das' words, “Is my voice going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I am submitting it to?” Though the author recognizes that her essay might apply to all writers from underrepresented groups, she directs her concerns primarily to “writers of color.” While I agree that racial and ethnic diversity should be a priority in the literary world, I submit this essay to suggest that numerous factors may operate to limit opportunities for underrepresented writers and that Das has overlooked some possible solutions. While I practice poetry seriously, I am neither a professional nor an academic poet. Thus, I cannot claim to have systematically studied the topic under consideration. I hope, however, to broaden and to enhance the conversation about under-representation of some groups among those identifying as writers, particularly, writers competing for publication.
To what extent do limited finances impede the careers of writers of color?
Some minority writers, particularly blacks and Hispanics, may lack the financial resources required for a successful career as a published author. Many potential choices may increase a writer's networks and chances of being published (e.g., money to hire a good editor, to consider high-quality self-publishing, to attend conferences or retreats). A wealthy [white] friend of mine recently self-published a beautiful volume that cost ~$20,000, including, ~$8,000 for a seasoned editor. Many minorities would find this option beyond their reach.
One viable solution to this problem that seems to be increasingly common is the formation of publishing collectives, and at least a few of the existing ones privilege writers from marginalized groups, in particular, LGBTQ and persons of color.
Another possibility would be for some publishers to designate quotas or a minimum number of titles specifically for writers of color; however, in my experience, there is vigorous resistance to this option, and it might be argued that such initiatives are contrary to aesthetic standards and purposes. Another obvious possibility would be for institutions, including publishers, to fund grants or fellowships to promising early-career writers of color, perhaps, after a writer of color has published articles in journals or magazines.
Are writers of color prepared to deploy competitive tactics and strategies? Related to this, are writers of color, particularly, blacks and Hispanics, more competition-averse than their peers?
These questions might be addressed by tutoring or by classes sponsored by organizations and educational programs. These are, also, issues that might be addressed by individuals via coaching (another option requiring funds) or self-help resources (e.g., books, tapes, videos).
I am suggesting that we may want to conduct additional studies on whether and/or why individuals from underrepresented groups may submit manuscripts less frequently than those from dominant groups (e.g., males, whites, graduates of M.F.A. Programs).
Do writers of color write with a Universal “voice” as well as a Specific (individual Race or Ethnicity) “voice”?
If it is accurate, as Das suggests, that the “voice” of a writer of color might be viewed as “alien” and, thus, less competitive when compared to writers from a dominant group (e.g., white males, famous authors, contest winners), does the writer of color address not only her individual traits, but, also, a “voice” that speaks beyond a particular group or demographic?
A critique of the Universal standard in publishing can be found in the Introduction to The racial imaginary: writers on race in the life of the mind (2015, Fence Books) edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. Despite the perspectives expressed in this Introduction, writers of color may want to address both the specific and the general in their work—implicitly and/or explicitly, in order to reach the broadest audience and to improve marketability of manuscripts. For example, in Citizen, Claudia Rankine's “you” might mean the recipient of a “micro-aggression,” the micro-aggressor, or all of us.
Have writers of color articulated the standards and criteria that guide or govern their practices?
In my opinion, writers of color need to articulate an aesthetic which might be normative, oppositional, or some combination of these. For better or worse, classical aesthetics probably govern the selection process at most publishing houses. If the work of a writer of color does not fulfill Formalist (form over language) expectations, then s/he might consider submitting to alternate, small, or specialized presses or starting a new press designated for underrepresented authors. The latter solution to resistance by mainstream publishing houses has a long and, often successful, tradition in this country (e.g., see the history of the New York School or of Language poets).
Emphasizing the pervasive influence of classical criteria, it is important for writers of color to realize that these standards have historically excluded most writers other than white males. The dominant motivation in literature is for agents, editors, and publishers to identify work that, in Paul Fry's words, are “true for all time,” an ideal of Romanticism. Helen Vendler, the pre-eminent poetry critic in the United States, is a Formalist who considers gender, race, and class to be secondary to “temperament” from which, in her view, “major” work arises. Vendler considers most poetry written by feminists to be “politics” and/or “sociology,” and she, in all likelihood, would say the same about writers of color, having stated that race is only one of many factors in a person's identity.
Unless I am mistaken, underrepresented writers have not marshaled a counter-response to Formalism, a project that would require a conversation among writers of color to formulate a new aesthetics. Personally, I favor such a project; however, I recognize that many writers of color would oppose it. In any event, underrepresented authors need to realize that they write with, in Adrienne Rich's words, “the oppressor's language” and in the oppressor's environment.
The late Caribbean-British Sociologist, Stuart Hall, has argued that influence and change can arise from “the margins,” suggesting that a progressive response to the lack of “diversity in the publishing sector” might be to generate innovative and oppositional strategies outside mainstream publishing. Such initiatives might, over time, attract a wide range of authors, including published writers of color as well as a representative sample of the writing community.
Finally, underrepresented writers who are challenged by the publishing process should insist that successful authors of color provide support, encouragement, resources, networking, and instruction to their colleagues in the pipeline.
Addendum 12/12/2015: Today I read this remarkable divedapper.com interview with [African-American] poet, Danez Smith. In addition to the rich and important discussion of his own work, Smith provides information about how he navigates the mainstream poetry community while, at the same time, maintaining authenticity as a black writer as well as a gay poet. Smith, also, mentions two collectives and other resources for writers of color.
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. She is a Staff Writer for the poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power, and her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues. Her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin' Kitsch Chapbook Competition. Clara studied with Adrienne Rich in the 1970s and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.